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Friday, September 23, 2011

Remonstrance (9)—Not Cliché (or you have missed the point)

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.
We continue our study of remonstrance with a series of posts that grew out of my participation in the Tenth East-West Philosophers Conference in Honolulu in May 2011. The theme was “Business Practice in a Global World,” and it was an exhilarating ten days of discussion and contention with philosophers, administrators, and entrepreneurs. My own work there centered on remonstrance, and my specific task was to convey the richness of the concept to philosophers, on the one had, and practicing business people, on the other. The next dozen or so posts under this “remonstrance” header will deal with that material.
[a] Sunset at Tiananmen RF
Although it may seem to be an esoteric topic, it is very far from it. In East Asia and the West, it lies at the heart of administrative practice and a great deal of public life. It is a social dynamic with powerful implications for the political order, and it has figured, just in the past few years in events ranging from the world financial crisis to critiques of domestic policy across the globe. The spirit of remonstrance is social and public, and that is precisely why those who wish to admonish think twice or thrice…and those in power fear it.

              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9

Remonstrance (9)—Not Cliché (or you have missed the point)
Heeding clear advice was one of the most basic of historical lessons.  “In ancient times,” wrote Sima Guang, “there was no office for remonstrance.  From the dukes, nobles, and high officials down to the workers and merchants, there was none who could not remonstrate.”[1] But the praise for ancient sage-kings who accepted correction with joy is tempered in the world of the Comprehensive Mirror by the hazards of speaking out in dangerous times.  Only a truly able ruler was capable of accepting criticism from inferiors.  For the less worthy, such as the unfortunate and flawed Sun Quan (CE 182–252) in the passage below, remonstrance was only a step short of vilification, and vilification only another step short of usurpation.  Pitting son against father or subject against ruler was dangerous business, and remonstrance bordered quite closely upon lèse majesté at best, and patricide (or regicide) at worst.

           Because Prince Ba of Lu had united his friends into a faction to harm his elder 
           brother, the Wu sovereign despised him in his heart.  He told the shizhong, Sun 
           Jun, “My sons are not civil; my subjects are divided.  We will suffer a debacle like 
           that of the Yuan clan, and we will be the joke of all under heaven.  If I let one 
           ascend, how can we avoid disaster?” 

Autumn.  The Wu sovereign subsequently had Crown Prince He confined.  The piaoji jiangjun, Zhu Ju, remonstrated, saying: “The Crown Prince is the foundation and root of state; moreover, he is benevolent and filial—all under heaven turn their hearts to him.  Formerly, Duke Xian of Jin made use of Li Ji, and Shensheng was not retained as heir; Wu of Han trusted Jiang Chong, and Crown Prince Li died innocently.  Your servant fears that the taizi will not survive his sorrow—although you may erect a Palace of Remembering Sons, it will not succeed in returning him.”  The Wu ruler did not listen.

Ju and the shangshu puye, Qu Huang, leading the various generals and officials, arms bound and heads muddied, came daily to court on behalf of He.  The Wu sovereign, ascending Bojue Terrace, saw them and was deeply annoyed.  He ordered Ju, Huang, and others not to concern themselves. Chen Zheng, commander of Wunan, and Chen Xiang, commander of Wuying, each sent memorials vociferously protesting.  Ju and Huang also forcefully remonstrated without cease.  The Wu sovereign was livid, executing Zheng, Xiang, and their families.  Ju and Huang were led into the hall, both continuing to voice their criticisms, kowtowing until their heads were bloody—their words and spirit unbending.

The Wu sovereign had them each flogged a hundred times.  He demoted Ju to juncheng of Xindu; Huang was dismissed to his home village.  The officials executed or dismissed for protesting numbered in the tens.  He subsequently deposed Crown Prince He, making him a commoner and banishing him to Guzhang.  He ordered Prince Ba of Lu to commit suicide.  He executed Yang Zhu, letting his corpse float upon the Jiang.  He also executed Quan Ji, Wu An, and Sun Qi, because all had used their ties with Ba to derogate He.[2]

The Comprehensive Mirror is filled with examples of brave, martyred ministers who spoke out about important affairs of state at the expense of their lives, sometimes carrying their coffins (in exquisite classical fashion) in preparation for their own punishment.  Remonstrance, which would hardly be necessary in a sagely utopia, pervades this chronicle of China’s past. The ideal social order did not need a check like remonstrance on it.  But in the chronicle of the Comprehensive Mirror—where incompetents and bastard-kings sometimes ruled—ministers needed a policy for dealing with unswerving sovereigns, and rulers who read the text needed examples of how badly things could go wrong if they acted rashly and chose flawed policies.

When the question concerned the principles of government, the minister had a right—an obligation—to speak out to the sovereign, sometimes gently harassing and tugging at robes, in what we might read now in mildly humorous fashion.

The emperor once went out to hunt pheasants.  Looking upon the assembled officials he said, “Hunting pheasants is certainly wonderful!”  Pi responded to him, saying, “For your majesty it is deeply delightful—for the many below you it is deeply bitter.”  The emperor was silent.  Thereafter he went out less frequently.[3]

This theme could be repeated almost endlessly with Comprehensive Mirror examples.  In this passage, Xin Pi, a modest historical personage to say the least, gained historiographical stature, and spoke even when the ruler was angry and “all the ministers at court shuddered.”  This was the essence of the remonstrance ideal: loyally respecting the authority of those above, but defending the principles that governed all under heaven.
***  ***
[b] All under heaven RF
 “Speaking out” and “answering back” in the sometimes strange narrative universe of the Comprehensive Mirror was often characterized by tugging at robes, shouting unheeded truths, kowtowing with bloody foreheads, and preparing to be placed in boiling cauldrons.  It led most often to imperial annoyance, as quoted above, but sometimes to rebuke, exile, or death for the critics.  What can we make of it?

There is a reality and power—even a personal turmoil—that goes far beyond exhausted classical quotations for those who experienced the consequences of criticizing, of losing, of leaving. It is not hard to see how quickly some of these images became cliché when repeated over many hundreds of years of historical documents. “Carrying one’s coffin” can seem quaint and even somewhat humorous, if we read enough accounts that use almost exactly the same language.

This is a problem of language—and history…and historiography. It is not, as Marcel Granet might well argue, one that should diminish the concept of remonstrance. No one has ever made this point more clearly for me (and I am eternally grateful) than Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, who was the moderator at a conference panel at Arizona State University in 2000, when I gave one of my first papers on remonstrance. I had spoken of cliché, and had mentioned how difficult it was to convey the seriousness of it to political scientists, on the one side, who sometimes saw it as just another kind of silly idealization, and literary scholars, on the other, who saw it “merely” as a trope or a literary device. In his comments at the end of the panel, Tillman told the audience that the seriousness of remonstrance should never be doubted.

“Just think about the young man standing in front of the tank in 1989,” he said.

[1] Sima Guang, Zizhi tongjian (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1956), [70] 2234.
[2] Zizhi tongjian, [75] 2386.
[3] Zizhi tongjian, [69] 2184.

Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian [資治通鑑; Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government]. Zhonghua Shuju, 1956.

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